LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Social media “echo chambers” can be an ideologically reinforcing place for some, since their morals match everyone else’s in the group. However, a new study finds these places online also lead to radicalization.
Researchers from the University of Southern California say members of online communities whose views constantly receive positive reinforcement from others are also more likely to become violent. Understanding how some people become radicalized online has become a priority for security services, especially since the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Now, scientists have narrowed down what kind of language people who are at risk of becoming radicalized use in their posts, some of whom may be willing to die defending their group’s values.
“In our research, we find that the more people are in morally homogeneous environments, the more likely they are to resort to radical means to defend themselves and their values,” says study author Dr. Mohammad Atari in a media release.
Examining incels in the ‘bubble’
The researchers examined more than 25 million internet posts on Gab, a social media network which typically attracts far-right users, including voices like Richard Spencer and Alex Jones. They found users were more likely to use derogatory language against other groups if their posts aligned with others on Gab.
In another study, the team analyzed 900,000 posts from an online community on Reddit, created for people who identify as “involuntary celibates.” Incels are people who are generally unable to attract a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one and frequently post hateful or violent comments about the opposite sex.
In this study as well, the researchers find people who believe their views match up with a wider group are more likely to become radicalized.
“People who find themselves in a ‘bubble’ — so to speak — wherein their ideas, beliefs, and values are strongly reinforced, could go on to form a visceral bond with their ingroup,” Dr. Atari says. “In these situations, people might engage in radical acts to defend their ingroup, ranging in intensity from an outrage-filled tweet to attacking a federal building.”
A place where no one disagrees is ‘not a great environment’
Study authors carried out three more studies to see whether leading people to believe that their group, whether made up or real, shared the same moral views would increase their radical intentions. Participants who believed their views had the support of their peers were “much more likely” to display radical behavior to protect and, to a lesser extent, fight or die for the group.
The team notes their data mainly comes from people inside the United States and may not reflect a global trend.
“What I am more convinced of is that putting yourself in an extremely homogeneous environment wherein nobody disagrees with your values, or cheers ‘hell yeah!’, is not a great environment to be in,” Dr. Atari concludes, “and it might even radicalize you.”
The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.